No African country has ever competed in the bobsled at the Olympics, but that's going to change at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

Three former track athletes from Nigeria are taking the Olympic stage in another sport altogether, one they began training for as a team only two years ago. Their road to Olympic glory will pit the athletes against more established teams from North America, Europe, and Asia — locales that all feature one element that Nigeria lacks: snow.

But the lack of winter conditions in their homeland is only one of many obstacles that the team has faced — and overcome — in just two years of existence. In their successful run-up to the Games, the team had very little external help in handling the logistics of creating and funding an Olympic team — they did it all by themselves.


In September 2016, Seun Adigun, a 2012 Olympic hurdler for Nigeria, invited runners Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga to join her bobsled team.

They were intrigued but knew next to nothing about the sport. Omeoga later joked about the meeting, "She kidnapped us. That's the story."

But after listening to  Adigun's pitch, Omeoga and Onwumere agreed to join as the brake-women for the team's sled. A team suddenly intact, the meeting ended with a declaration from Adigun on behalf of the nascent squad:

"Today we have decided that we are going to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games," she said.

Adigun was the only member with any bobsled experience, having trained with the U.S. team just eight months after watching her first race in 2014.

But even though the others were new to the sport, their previous pedigrees served as a vital asset. Historically, track athletes have enjoyed success in the transition to bobsled teams, but they have done so under far better circumstances than the Nigerian team. The team was, quite literally, nothing more than an idea at that early point — lacking funding, knowledge, and even a cohesive strategy as to how they would qualify for the game in a scant two years' time. And they were also missing an actual bobsled.

But Adigun, in what would be one of many instances of resourcefulness, took the matter into her own hands, building a sled from a local hardware store's scraps. Adigun named the ramshackle sled "Maeflower," the variant spelling a tribute to her stepsister, nicknamed Maemae, who died in a car wreck in 2009.

But as  the qualification deadlines loomed, the team still didn't have any money.

That's why two months after the team's creation, Adigun established a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money to travel, train, and compete in a manner comparable to their rivals. Fortunately, the inspiring story of the team's inception and goal buoyed their campaign. The team succeeded in raising $75,000 from strangers, $50,000 of which came from a single anonymous donor.

In addition to their GoFundMe, the athletes sought out funds from friends and family to cover the balance of their training expenses. They "started from zero," according to Akuoma Omeoga.

With yet another issue solved — or at least "managed" — it was time for the team to begin racing.

Over the next 14 months, the Nigerian bobsled team began to coalesce by following races in Park City, Whistler, and Calgary. And after competing in five races, they qualified for the Olympics.

Can't wait to see these ladies in action #nigerianbobsledteam

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Thanks to their ingenuity and perseverance, they have became the team to watch in Pyeongchang.

"We are this Cinderella story, and we didn't really mean it to be this," Adigun told The New York Times. "It comes with a lot more pressure, but I'm not thinking about it that way. I put a plan down, and I am ready to execute that plan."

That plan won't just serve the Nigerian bobsled team. Their approach is an inspiration for any subsequent Olympic hopefuls looking to blaze their nation's trail to the biggest sporting event in the world. To compete at an Olympic level, an emergent team must contend with far more than just the athletic aspect of competition, and those challenges often require out-of-the-box thinking, just like the Nigerian team has demonstrated countless times over.

The Nigerian bobsled team's saga proves to the world, especially aspirational children who may be watching a sport for the first time, that those obstacles, much like the athletic ones, can be overcome as long as a team keeps pushing forward to both plan and prepare for everything that comes its way.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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